WHENEVER anyone writes anything remotely controversial about religion in Scotland, they find themselves under attack from the usually self-appointed guardians of whatever faith or sect considers itself to have been maligned.

It is with some trepidation, therefore, that I approach a subject that has surfaced in the news from time to time – blasphemy. I am doing so in the first of a two-part examination of very dark happenings in Scottish history, and next week I will be looking at what I consider to be the worst excesses of religious intolerance – the burning of witches.

This week we start with the case of Thomas Aikenhead, hanged in Edinburgh in 1697 for the crime of blasphemy. Don’t think this is irrelevant ancient history – blasphemy and heresy are still crimes in Scots law.

It is an offence at common law “to publish or expose for sale blasphemous works which are intended to asperse, vilify, ridicule and bring into contempt the Holy Scriptures or the Christian religion.”

The last blasphemy case was in 1843 and the current SNP Government has promised to repeal these laws. One wonders which MSPs will contest that move…

Aikenhead’s case has been the subject of several books and two plays that I know of – The Blasphemer by the redoubtable George Rosie back in the 1990s with the late Stevie Hannan in the title role and I Am Thomas, a 2016 ‘brutal’ comedy by Simon Armitage and the Told By An Idiot theatre company.

Both examined the phenomenon of freedom of speech in different ways, and Rosie’s was the most historically accurate as it portrayed Aikenhead as a youngster who regretted what he had said but found the courage to face death bravely.

Thomas Aikenhead came from a well-to-do family in Edinburgh, his father being listed as a surgeon but more probably an apothecary, a dispenser of herbs and potions. Both his parents were dead by the time he became a student at Edinburgh University at the age of 16 or 17.

His mother had been a daughter of the manse, and you would think that would have made Aikenhead wary of challenging the established religion of the time, namely the all-powerful Church of Scotland, especially while still a student and under the constant gaze of professors, lecturers and, as it turned out, his fellow students.

These were the dying days of a curious period in Scottish history. Aikenhead would have been four when the ‘Wizard of the West Bow’ Major Thomas Weir was executed in 1670. Weir was by day an extreme Calvinist but by night an incestuous Satanist and it takes no great leap of reason to see that an impressionable young boy might well have been affected by the trial and execution of a local celebrity that lived not far from him.

The 1680s was also the ‘killing time’ for the Covenanters as we have seen in a recent Back In The Day. Was Aikenhead cowed or inspired by seeing members of the Presbyterian Covenanting sect hanged in the Grassmarket? And what did he think of the Presbyterians themselves when they started to impose severe Kirk laws on Scotland?

We do know that he read widely and took on board the views of radical thinkers in England and the Continent, and from them he appears to have formed the opinions that would cost him his life.

At the age of 19 or 20, he seems to have undergone a drastic change in demeanour and started to make his views on religion public, sometimes over a tankard in a tavern and once even on the steps of the Tron Kirk in the High Street of Edinburgh.

There was a warning that Aikenhead ignored – earlier in 1696 local bookseller John Frazer was imprisoned for his public declaration of the non-existence of God or Satan.

With the boldness of autodidactic youth, Aikenhead carried on discoursing freely, and did so at great length to his “friend” Murdo Craig.

Some ‘friend’ – Craig began to gather the sayings of Aikenhead, and when the inevitable happened and the authorities were informed of Aikenhead’s statements, Craig handily had kept a note of them.

We know that because they formed a large part of the indictment against Aikenhead.

It reads: “Nevertheless it is of verity, that you Thomas Aikenhead, shakeing off all fear of God and regaird to his majesties lawes, have now for more than a twelvemoneth by past, and upon severall of the dayes within the said space, and ane or other of the same, made it as it were your endeavour and work in severall compainies to vent your wicked blasphemies against God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, and against the holy Scriptures, and all revealled religione, in soe far as upon ane or other of the dayes forsaid, you said and affirmed, that divinity or the doctrine of theologie was a rapsidie of faigned and ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the morall doctrine of philosophers, and pairtly of poeticall fictions and extravagant chimeras, or words to this effect or purpose, with severall other such reproachfull expressions.”

That was just for starters. Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees, the Lord Advocate of the day, had taken a personal interest in the case and he decided to throw the whole lot of Craig’s testimony at Aikenhead who was arrested in November, 1696, and charged under the Blasphemy Act of 1661 which carried the death penalty. He also charged Aikenhead under a more recent act, which made it a criminal offence to ‘deny, impugn or quarrel’ about the existence of God.

Aikenhead was sent for trial where Murdo Craig was the chief prosecution witness. Four other “friends” backed up Craig’s testimony saying that the accused spoke in a sneering manner. We know what Aikenhead said to Craig and the others because it appeared in the indictment and in a pamphlet published by Craig.

“Lykeas you scoffed at, and endeavoured to ridicule the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra’s fables, by a profane allusione to Esop’s fables, and saying that Ezra was the inventer therof, and that being a cunning man he drew a number of Babylonian slaves to follow him, for whom he made up a feigned genealogie as if they had been descended of kings and princes in the land of Canaan, and therby imposed upon Cyrus who was a Persian and stranger, persuading him by the devyce of a pretendit prophecy concerning himself; and as for the New Testament, you not only scoff at it, but in your scoffing did most blasphemously raill upon our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, calling the said New Testament the History of the Impostor Christ, and affirming him to have learned magick in Egypt, and that coming from Egypt into Judea, he picked up a few ignorant blockish fisher fellows, whom he knew by his skill and phisognomie, had strong imaginations, and that by the help of exalted imaginatione he play’d his pranks as you blashphemously terme the working of his miracles.”

You suspect that the following lines in the indictment really annoyed the Presbyterians with their hatred of Islam: “You have lykwayes in discourse preferred Mahomet to the blessed Jesus, and you have said that you hoped to see Christianity greatly weakened, and that you are confident that in a short tyme it will be utterly extirpate.”

AIKENHEAD by now knew that he was in very great trouble and protested in effect that he was guilty only of the sin of being youthful and had been led astray by the books he had read. He claimed to have repented of his anti-Christian beliefs and was once again a good Presbyterian.

In this way he seems to have thrown himself upon the mercy of the court. There was none. On Christmas Eve, 1696, a jury found him guilty. Sir James Stewart asked for the death penalty and it was granted and “pronounced for doom,” as Scottish judges were still saying well into the 20th century in capital punishment cases.

Aikenhead pleaded for his life to the Privy Council emphasising his youth, his dire circumstances, and the fact that he was reconciled to the Protestant religion. There was some support for the death sentence to be commuted from at least two councillors and two Church of Scotland ministers, but the General Assembly of the Kirk intervened, demanding that Aikenhead suffer “vigorous execution to curb the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”.

In his last letter to friends, written in the Tolbooth prison in Edinburgh as he awaited execution, Aikenhead at last gave a plausible explanation for his conduct – that he had been a disappointed seeker after truth.

He wrote: “It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth and to seek for it as for hid treasure. So I proceeded until the more I thought thereon, the further I was from finding the verity I desired.”

In truth, in a repressed society the student had just gone too far in rejecting the doctrines of Christianity – remember he called them “feigned and ill-invented nonsense” – in a society that was ruled over by Presbyterians and politicians who feared any disruption to the “natural order” of things.

Aikenhead went to his death on January 8, 1697, hanged on the scaffold at Shrubhill between Edinburgh and Leith. It is said that before he died he proclaimed that moral laws were the work of governments and men.

In his hand as the noose was placed around his neck was the Holy Bible.

The execution angered many people for many years afterwards. The great English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote an account of the hanging and called the execution “a crime such has never since polluted the island.”

He continued: “The preachers who were the boy’s murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and, while he was struggling in the last agony, insulted Heaven with prayers more blasphemous than any thing that he had ever uttered.”

There was other evidence of church authorities being present as Aikenhead died. He was the last man in Britain to be hanged for blasphemy.

According to Arthur Herman in his book How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It the execution of Aikenhead was “the last hurrah of Scotland’s Calvinist ayatollahs” before the dawning of the age of reason in the Enlightenment.

I hate to disagree with someone whose work I admire, but next week I will show how religion-inspired intolerance continued after Aikenhead’s judicial murder, for that is what it was.

Social and cultural progress was inexorable as Scotland changed slowly from a backward agrarian nation to a new industrial power. But even after the Act of Union of 1707, Scotland was in many ways almost a medieval country, certainly in terms of its religion-dominated culture, law and politics.

Fully 30 years after Aikenhead did, in 1727 in the small town of Dornoch in Sutherland, Janet Horne was put on trial for the “crime” of having a daughter whose feet and hands were misshapen and who had herself given birth to a son with disabilities. She was the last woman in Britain to be burned at the stake for being a witch, her death bringing to an end the “burning time” when perhaps 4000 Scottish women were executed for the crime of witchcraft.

We will examine the “burning time” in part two. Next week’s column will not make for easy reading.